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STRATEGY

The Simplistic Brilliance of 'Pawn Stars'
 

Why do I find a TV show about a Las Vegas pawn brokerage so interesting? Rick Harrison, the store's owner and show's hero, is all the inspiration I need.

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Hundreds of channels, countless TV shows, and for some reason I keep finding myself drawn to the Pawn Stars on the History Channel.  Why do I find a show about a Las Vegas based pawn brokerage so interesting? It's Rick Harrison, the store's owner and the show's hero.

I know why I connect with Rick.  He's very familiar to me.  He's like many small business owners my age.  He's stuck between generations.  Lurking behind every transaction (and with a twinkle in his eye) is the "Old Man."  Make no mistake about it, the Old Man is keeping a watchful eye over things and Rick takes great comfort from having him around.  The Old Man is respected, knowledgeable, but showing his age.  And coming up the ranks is the son who represents the store's (and our country's) future--assuming he can take the time out from playing video games and riding his motorcycle.  The son has potential but is green and still lacks maturity.  So in the end, it's all on Rick's shoulders.  Sound familiar?  It does to me.

Like every business owner, Rick's entire job is making deals.  Most entrepreneurs worry about sales.  How do you price your products?  Where do you find your customers?  But Rick has a different problem. For him, it's not about the sell.  It's about the buy.  How much should he pay for that baseball signed by the entire 1962 American League All-Star team?  Is that civil war rifle really worth $10,000?  Can he sell that original painting from Salvador Dali (and what the hell is that painting doing in Vegas, of all places)?  Rick buys first, then sells later.  But he only buys when's he's darn well sure he can sell--for a reasonable profit.  Forget strategic thinking, lean operations, and managerial gobbledegook.  Forget MBAs, PhDs, think tanks, and all those super-smart academics at Wharton and Berkeley.  Forget all the buzzwords and the romantics who dream of starting up a "dream business" to "change the world."  My most successful clients are like Rick.  They know how to buy and sell.  It's as simple as that.

Rick Harrison is not afraid to say, "no."

Notice that Rick goes into every transaction with a bottom line price he'll pay.  Of course he's guessing.  But he relies on his instincts.  He knows his costs.  He knows his market.  Every once in a while he'll take a gamble, but even when he gambles, it's never more than he can afford to lose.  Smart business owners never bet the house, even on a limousine formerly owned by Jackie Gleason.  And Rick's not afraid to say, "no."  He's not afraid to walk away from a deal.  No matter how pretty the seller is.  Or how cool an item is.  If he can't make a profit, he won't buy it.  Smart business people don't get swayed by emotions.  It's a very black-and-white game for him.

He negotiates openly, and professionally.

Pay attention to his negotiating style too.  It's brilliant in its simplicity.  He stands behind his counter, hands placed in an open posture in front of him, like a gunslinger eyeing his opponent at the O.K. Corral.  But it's not a battle position.  His body language is open to any offers.  And he always asks the other guy:  "So, what do you want for this?" or "What do you think this is worth?"  He always lets the other guy make the first offer.  This sets the stage.  And he rarely accepts the first offer.  That's no fun.  When Rick counter-offers, it's almost always with an explanation.  And this is his strength: he's not a jerk.  He's a good guy.  And his explanations are genuine.  He always gives reasons.  He doesn't put on airs.  He treats his customers with respect, even when their asking price is completely out of the ballpark.  So many business owners I know view their customers as the enemy, looking to suck every last dime out of their bank accounts.  Rick doesn't let things get that personal.  And that's the right attitude.

He's fair.

No matter how the negotiation ends, everyone walks away a winner.  Or at least not feeling like a loser.  If a guy expects to get $10,000 for a baseball card but only walks away with $500 he understands why and he almost always still feels like he got a deal.  If no deal happens then there's a legitimate reason.  There's no name calling or pointing of fingers.  No one thinks they got swindled.  Rick very frequently pays a little more than he hoped to pay.  In fact there have been a few instances where Rick paid more than the asking price because that was the fair thing to do.  Imagine that.  If only our leaders in Washington had the same attitude.

He's no faker.

The funniest part of the show (to me) is when Rick speaks directly to the camera and gives us a detailed history of some obscure historical artifact brought into his store.  Oh c'mon, you're not fooling us, dude. We know you've been fed these details by the research team at the History Channel.  You're a pawnbroker from Vegas, for God's sake, not a Harvard professor.  But that's OK.  Because when Rick gets down to doing business he's more than genuine.  When it comes to figuring out a fair price, he's quick to admit when he doesn't know something.  And somehow, in a town known for Celine Dion, strip shows, and all-you-can-eat buffets, there's no shortage of experts-in-the-field who suddenly appear and help appraise items brought into the store.  Rick's honest and doesn't pretend.  He does not come across as a genius-in-his-own-mind.  That's the kind of guy you want to do business with.  And that's how I want to be too.

He truly enjoys his work.

Finally, and most importantly, Rick has fun.  You can tell he genuinely enjoys the deal-making back-and-forth.  This is not a chore to him.  It's sport.  I see so many business owners that are miserable all day long.  They complain about all the "headaches" they get running their businesses.  Rick has his headaches for sure, like the hilarious Chumlee who I'm sure would not be employed if he wasn't so funny on the show.  But when Rick's behind the counter, looking at a potential buy, and negotiating with a customer, he's having a good time.  You should be like this at your job.

All this explains why I'm a fan of Pawn Stars.  Like Rick, I'm a business owner.  And a salesperson.  And my business is all on my shoulders too.  My dad passed away a few years ago.  My kids are too young to be involved.  I have no partners.  It's all me.  Sometimes it's overwhelming; oftentimes it's rewarding.   But when the pressures of running a small business weigh on me I don't look to pundits, gurus, and motivational speakers for comfort.  I look at guys like Rick.  He's got the same problems I have.  But he's doing it.  And with a smile.  That's all the inspiration I need.

IMAGE: lcphotography/Flickr
Last updated: Mar 6, 2013

GENE MARKS is a columnist, author, and small-business owner. He oversees the Marks Group, a 10-person technology consultancy to small and medium-size businesses. A certified public accountant, Marks has also worked in the entrepreneurial services arm of KPMG. He writes for The New York Times, Forbes, and The Huffington Post.
@genemarks




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